It’s no secret that we are a nation of pill poppers and taking supplements is part of our everyday routines. Net-A-Porter last year reported that British women were splashing more cash on supplements than skincare serums with 75 per cent of their sales going towards products such as Elle Macpherson ’s Super Elixir and Neat Nutrition’s ‘Super Greens’ powder.
But this week a new study made many of us rethink our consumption, linking calcium supplements to an increased risk of death from cancer. "Calcium supplements linked to cancer in major study," said the Daily Telegraph. "Taking calcium supplements could double risk of dying from cancer," chimed the Independent. So should we be throwing away our multivits and minerals?
Let’s take a closer look. Scientists from Tufts University in Massachusetts analysed the medical records of 27,000 US adults and followed up after 12 years and found links between high doses of calcium supplements and cancer and published their findings in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. After 12 years, there were roughly 24 cancer-related deaths among calcium supplement users compared to 12 in non-users, suggesting a 53 per cent greater risk of death from cancer. People could be putting themselves at risk by taking calcium supplement doses higher than 1,000 milligrams per day, they concluded.
Sound scary? Healthspan medical director and nutritionist Dr Sarah Brewer doesn’t think we should be concerned. She highlights that the study was conducted in the United States where recommended daily doses are higher. “In the EU the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) for calcium is 800mg per day for adults," she says. "In the US, the old daily value was 1000mg per day and now the new dose for adults and children aged 4+ is 1,200mg per day.”
She also points out that the study included participants who had only just started taking supplements “for example, because they were starting to experience signs of ill health” and so would be classed as a supplement taker. “The symptoms of cancer often include tiredness and fatigue and bone pain which may prompt some people to start taking supplements.”
What's more, the study may have also been subject to bias because the participants' supplement use was self-reported rather than done under lab conditions.
How important is calcium for our health? According to the NHS, it has several important functions including helping build strong bones and teeth, regulating muscle contractions - including your heartbeat - and making sure blood clots normally. A lack of calcium can also lead to rickets in children - which affects bone development - and osteomalacia or osteoporosis in later life.
So what should we do? The latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey results show that 11 per cent of women and two per cent of men had worryingly low intakes of calcium, Dr Brewer says, enough to put them at risk of deficiency symptoms. “Similarly, 17 per cent of adults have low levels of vitamin D (19 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women) so they will not absorb calcium well.”
But getting calcium into our systems is easy. Dr Brewer says we can get all we need from the food on our plates. “Diet should always come first,” she says. “Having the equivalent of an additional pint of milk per day, for example, can supply 720mg per day which is almost the full RDA. You may not get your calcium requirement, and if you are lacking in vitamin D - common in the UK - then you will not absorb calcium as well. If you have osteoporosis (thinning bones) your doctor will usually prescribe calcium plus vitamin D to aid its absorption.”
A healthy diet of fruit and vegetables - broccoli, as opposed to spinach (which has a high content of oxalates, compounds hinder mineral absorption) and an extra pint of milk each day will do the trick, she says. If you’re vegan or lactose intolerant look to nuts, wholegrains and seeds. But if you’re not getting enough calcium in your diet for whatever reason, says Brewer, “select a supplement that provides up to 800mg calcium per day alongside good intakes of vitamin D and vitamin K2 which help to ensure calcium is processed properly.”
So it seems we need not worry unduly if we choose to take calcium supplements, so long as we stick to the recommended dose and consult a doctor. In fact, we could be correcting a deficiency. But more importantly, we mustn't neglect our vitamin D intake - which, can be hard when you live in a country with very few D-giving sunny days. An excuse if ever you needed to book a summer holiday?